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Northwestern football prospects to watch for the 2023 NFL Draft

Peter Skoronski is on the precipice of following in Rashawn Slater’s footsteps once more.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Michigan State at Northwestern Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The epitaph of “The highs are highs, and the lows are lows” has certainly applied to Northwestern Football since the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure in 2006. The same can be said about the Wildcats’ pattern of players being selected in the NFL Draft.

After one of the most successful campaigns in program history in 2020, three ‘Cats were taken last April, including Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome in Round 1. However, tearing the page a year forward provided a much more bleak outlook: NU was the only school in the Big Ten to not have a player selected, marking the second time in three years that Fitzgerald didn’t produce any draft picks.

There were some former Northwestern players to catch on in the pro ranks just a few weeks ago, including receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. signing as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals and linebacker Chris Bergin earning an invite to Chicago Bears rookie minicamp. Overall, though, a disappointing draft period followed suit from a 3-9 campaign.

Although no Wildcats were picked among the 262 selections this year, that is likely to change in 2023 in a large way. Read below to get to know some of the top prospects NU should boast entering the draft 11 months away.

Peter Skoronski, OT/OG, Junior (Projection: Round 1)

Point blank, Skoronski is one of, if not the, best returning offensive linemen in the country entering this season. After an otherworldly first-year campaign and a solid 2021, Skoronski is poised to hear his name called on Thursday, April 27, 2023, should he enter it in the draft.

Skoronski has a litany of elements working in his favor. To start, he manned the same position that Slater played so deftly in Evanston, sliding in as seamlessly as possible at left tackle; based on Slater’s Pro Bowl rookie season, NFL teams can trust in Wildcat OL coach Kurt Anderson to create stars at the next level.

Moreover, Skoronski has professional football bloodlines, something which scouts continually covet. His grandpa, Bob Skoronski, won five NFL championships with the Packers, playing 11 years along Green Bay’s offensive line.

One thing Skoronski does have working against him are his measurables. Listed at 6-foot-4, Skoronski’s height would be in the eighth percentile among NFL offensive tackles since 1999, and his listed weight of 294 pounds would be in the second percentile, per Mockdraftable. As such, many experts, including The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, believe that Skoronski may be better suited to play guard at the next level.

It is worth noting, however, that Slater’s 6-foot-4 and a quarter-inch height (14th percentile) and 304-pound weight (18th percentile) didn’t lead to legitimate questions among NFL teams. In order to quell such concerns, Skoronski will likely have to light up athleticism drills, including the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and three-cone — as Slater did.

If Skoronski continues to hold his own on the perimeter, there is little question that an NFL team seeking a franchise tackle will select him very early next April. Way-too-early mock drafts have consistently listed Skoronski in the top 20; examples include Bleacher Report’s fit with the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 11 and Brugler having the Tennessee Titans taking Skoronski at No. 18.

For an in-depth look at Skoronski, especially how he performed against top-flight edge rushers in this year’s draft class, stay tuned for a film room this summer on the Northwestern left tackle.

Adetomiwa Adebawore, EDGE, Senior (Projection: Rounds 3-5)

Despite having played nearly 1,250 snaps in three seasons in Evanston, Adebawore continues to fly under the radar. It could be a lack of sack production, as Adebawore has gotten to the quarterback just 7.5 times in 24 games.

At the same time, Adebawore is a true disruptor along the Northwestern defensive line. The senior’s 21 hurries ranked ninth in the Big Ten among edge rushers to play at least 580 snaps, while his 23 stops were tied for 13th, according to Pro Football Focus. The Kansas City native projects best as a 4-3 edge rusher given his frequency of lining up in a three-point stance.

The ultimate arbiter for Adebawore’s projections will be how well he performs in athleticism tests at his Pro Day and the NFL Combine, if invited. Entering 2023, though, it feels like Adebawore is at least on teams’ radars and has a major opportunity to boost his stock.

Coco Azema, S, Junior (Projection: Rounds 5-7)

Only a junior, Azema isn’t super likely to enter next year’s draft, but he definitely made waves based on his 2021 play.

Although inconsistent at times, Azema emerged as a sound complement to Brandon Joseph, especially as Joseph took several steps backward. In fact, Azema was named to PFF’s College Team of the Week after posting an 85.4 overall grade against Michigan.

Azema’s area of expertise is physicality, especially in terms of tackling. The Texas native has earned an 84.3 tackling grade in each of the last two years; that mark ranked 19th among safeties to play 500 or more snaps last season.

At the same time, there is work to be done in terms of Azema’s coverage skills. Nevertheless, without Joseph, Azema is primed to be a leader in the back end of Northwestern’s defense; should he continue to play well, he very well could enter his hat in the 2023 Draft.

Malik Washington, WR, Senior (Projection: Round 6-Undrafted)

It almost feels unfair to really evaluate Wildcat receivers based on how bad quarterback play was in 2021. I really do believe that Robinson could have been drafted if Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty and Ryan Hilinski had proven to at least combine for some decent play under center.

With Robinson transitioning to the next level, Washington will presumably become NU’s WR1 in 2022. Washington is a precise route-runner with great hands and exceptional contested-catch ability: just watch this highlight-reel grab over two Purdue defenders in the Wildcats Classic from last November.

At just 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds, Washington is undersized and doesn’t have prolific speed. However, he is quite compact and tough, probably projecting best in the slot, where he played 82.9% of his snaps in 2021.

Given that Robinson went undrafted despite having a relatively well-rounded college career between Kansas and Northwestern, draft expectations for Washington are lower than once anticipated. Like Azema, though, Washington controls his own destiny by presumably being thrust into a larger role in 2022.

A.J. Hampton Jr., CB, Senior (Projection: Undrafted)

After waiting his turn behind Greg Newsome and Cam Ruiz in 2020, Hampton finally earned consistent starting snaps in 2021. However, the results were not too pretty.

At times, Hampton would look like a lockdown corner, closing space in a hurry and batting away passes with his terrific ball skills. Other times, though, the Arkansas native looked totally outmatched, getting fooled by double-moves (see: against Milton Wright and Purdue) and struggling.

If Hampton can avoid backbreaking inconsistency, he could hear his name called on Day Three of the draft, but his most recent play left much to be desired.

Other Names to Watch: Ray Niro III, WR/ST, Senior; Cam Mitchell, CB, Junior; Ethan Wiederkehr, OT, Graduate Student; Andrew Clair, RB, Graduate Student; Ryan Johnson, DL, Graduate Student